There have been teams all season threatening to derail Manchester City’s quest to land an unprecedented quadruple trophy haul of Carabao Cup, FA Cup, Premier League, and Champions League title.
The Cityzens face their most daunting of those challenges to date Wednesday when they look to overturn a one-goal deficit in the second leg of their Champions League quarterfinal tie versus Premier League rivals Tottenham Hotspur at the Etihad.
Potential Starting XIs
The Lilywhites made the most of their new-found home-pitch advantage at renovated White Hart Lane a week ago, riding a 78th-minute goal from Heung-Min Son to a 1-0 victory and the slim advantage they carry into this contest. The win did come at a cost, though, as star striker Harry Kane suffered an ankle injury before Son’s goal and will miss this contest as well as most of Tottenham’s run-in.
Kane is the most notable absence for Spurs, though manager Mauricio Pochettino will also be without midfielder Eric Dier, while right back Serge Aurier is also unavailable through injury. Harry Winks could be a game-time decision due to a groin injury that sidelined him for last weekend’s match.
“We are going to be more than proud of our run in the Champions League and try to arrive in the semi-final and challenge a team like Man City,” Pochettino said at Tuesday’s news conference.
“Man City is one of the best teams in the world and a clear favourite to win the Premier League and Champions League. For us to beat them in the first leg was an amazing result but we know very well the tie is still open and it is going to be very, very tough but we have the belief that we are going to fight. This game is going to be an amazing challenge and fight. I am so motivated and excited.”
Spurs did get some good news with Dele Alli and Erik Lamela expected to play as Alli missed last weekend’s 4-0 league win over Huddersfield Town with a fractured hand. Lamela has sufficiently recovered from a hamstring injury that has sidelined him since Tottenham’s second-leg win over Borussia Dortmund in the round of 16.
While playing without their talisman in a hostile venue is sub-optimal, Spurs have soldiered on without Kane earlier this season. Keeper Hugo Lloris — whose penalty save of Sergio Aguero in the first leg helped Spurs carry this slender advantage to Manchester — is confident his outfield players will do whatever it takes to see Spurs through to the Champions League semifinals for the first time in club history.
“We have a different profile up front and they are ready to help and to give the maximum for the team like we did when we missed Harry (before),” Lloris said at Tuesday’s press conference. “In football it’s all about the team performance, even if there is an individual performance that can make the difference. It’s important to be strong together.
“(We have to) try to enjoy this moment. The Club, the fans, the players, the coaching staff… we are all excited and ready to fight tomorrow and to try to make history for our Club.”
A World Cup winner last year for France, Lloris has had his share of highs and lows. While he has made three consecutive penalty saves, his late gaffe at Anfield against Liverpool has contributed to Tottenham being in a four-way fight for the final two Champions League spots in the Premier League after the London club faded from the title race.
Pochettino will have to choose between Fernando Llorente and Lucas Moura as Son’s running partner up front, with the former nursing a knock suffered versus Huddersfield Town and the latter in form after ripping the relegated side for three goals last weekend.
Much was made of City boss Pep Guardiola’s conservative approach to the first leg, most notably leaving both Leroy Sane and Kevin De Bruyne on the bench until the waning minutes with his side already trailing. Whether Guardiola was just playing the percentages of bringing the match to Etihad in a winnable position while limiting the damage or perhaps rotating his players to set up his side to attack in this leg, the bottom line is City need to win by two goals to advance.
“Vincent Kompany made a good point before Palace where these sorts of moments as players it brings out the best in us and we need to trust in ourselves,” said City centre back John Stones. “In the Premier League, we have got five games left, everything to play for and we’ve got to keep believing and enjoying the pressure.
“Personally, you get the best out of yourself when you’re under scrutiny.
This may be the first time since very early in the season Guardiola has his entire first-choice starting XI available with the expectations both Sane and De Bruyne will be included. The other notable addition would be Benjamin Mendy at left back, with the France international having sat out the first leg but getting the start Saturday in City’s league win at Crystal Palace.
There was some concern about striker Sergio Aguero being lifted late in the win over Palace, but Guardiola did it more as a precaution. The Argentina international has 29 goals in all competitions, but his penalty miss against Lloris also contributed to City needing to overturn this deficit.
The match could also serve as a referendum on Guardiola, which sounds ridiculous on the surface considering he has already won this competition twice while with Barcelona. The Catalan again bristled at pundits who have labeled his Bayern and City sides that have failed to deliver a third title failures, but he also has yet to match City’s furthest progression in the Champions League established by Manuel Pellegrini in 2016.
“So I’ve said many times, this competition is tough and in this competition there are many good teams,” Guardiola said. “So the important thing is the way we approach it. And I think the first year we were not ready. The second year, many things happened, we were ready, the team was better but that can happen.
“I know people say I came here to win the Champions League. I didn’t come here to win the Champions League, honestly. I came here to play with my team the way we are playing the last 20 months, to play the way I want to play. And of course I want the Champions League.”
Guardiola also threw down the gauntlet for City supporters to fill the Etihad for this match, something that should instinctively happen, but sometimes doesn’t given the antagonism that remains with City supporters and UEFA. They still jeer through the Champions League anthem, but Guardiola is expecting City fans to come out in force.
“I want to see that they want to get to the semi-finals, not just the players, the fans too. I want to see that,” he said. “If tomorrow night they don’t help us . . . do it for the guys. For the last 20 months, they are so proud of what they [the players] have done and they deserve it.”
This matches starts a high-pressure six days of football for City, who will face Spurs again at the Etihad on Saturday in Premier League play, a match that gives the Cityzens a chance to take a provisional lead atop the table until Liverpool face Cardiff City on Sunday. Then there is the Manchester derby versus eternal rivals United at Old Trafford on Wednesday, which was moved as City progressed to the FA Cup final in which they will play Watford next month at Wembley.
“If we don’t win these games, we will be out in two competitions, they are absolute finals for us,” he said. “But I had that feeling from weeks ago, not just this week. Last season in this period we were already champion. But this season we have an incredible opponent in the Premier League, Liverpool.
“So both teams deserve to be champion but only one is going to get it. But of course this week we are going to mark the last three weeks of the season and we are going to go through or we are going to prepare for the FA Cup final and next season.”
The winner of this tie will face Ajax in the semifinals after the Dutch side defeated Juventus 3-2 on aggregate following a 2-1 victory in Turin on Tuesday.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Manchester City 3 (3), Tottenham Hotspur 0 (1).
(Raheem Sterling photo courtesy Raheem Sterling official Twitter account)
(Lucas Moura photo courtesy Tottenham Hotspur official Twitter account)